Table Speech

Urushi and Decorative Arts

September 30, 2020

Mr. Masakazu Kashiwabara
Executive vice-president, KUROEYA

 Urushi (natural lacquer) is a sap tapped from varnish trees native to East and Southeast Asia that stretch from Japan to India. Archeological discoveries suggest that urushi was used for arrow shafts as early as the Stone Age. In Hokkaido, decorative items from 9,000 years ago using urushi were discovered. Urushi has been applied to a variety of surfaces as coating and adhesive material, thanks to the resin “urushiol” contained within the sap which polymerizes under the temperature of 20-25℃ and the humidity of 70-75%, transforming urushi into a solid and durable substance.

 In the Asuka Period (592-710), urushi was used as decorative coating for a wide range of objects, of which Tamamushi-no-zushi (Miniature Shrine Decorated with Jewel Beetles) is known as the oldest masterpiece preserved today. Owned by Horyuji Temple, this designated national treasure has Buddhist paintings drawn on its pedestal and doors using urushi mixed with multiple colorants. In the Heian Period (794-1185), urushi came to be used as construction material, exemplified in Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) of Cyuson-ji Temple where the surface of the entire building was coated with the highest-quality urushi. Maki-e developed during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), which is the lacquerware sprinkled with gold or silver powders. Tea ceremony gained popularity during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), together with Chinese paintings of the Song and Yuan Dynasties, which added some exotic flavor to urushi art, as seen in Choshitsu (Carved Lacquer) that applies urushi several hundred times to create a layer of about 3mm thick which is then carved to create engraved designs in relief. Feudal domains of the Edo Period (1603-1868) produced local specialties using urushi and diversified its style and designs. Japanese lacquerware also became extremely popular in Europe, attracting Europeans to the beautiful and mysterious black luster where black paint was not available then.

 The Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the introduction of economic liberalism took a toll on painstaking craftsmanship based on time-consuming traditional technique, to be replaced by poor quality lacquerware with showy superficial beauty. For example, the usage of desiccant agent disturbed polymerization and made lacquerware peel off easily due to poor adhesiveness. During the Showa Period (1926-1989), synthetic lacquerware was created by mixing wood powder with resin and gained popularity because they had some taste of urushi lacquerware but were easy to care. In recent years, new materials are being developed to ensure sustainability, including a 100% biomass synthetic lacquerware called Sustimo. It is produced by combining timber powder from forest thinning with tree resins to form a new composite material and add thermal processes.

 I hope you enjoy using lacquerware known for its toughness and flexibility. As you use them by taking good care, they gain gloss and taste. Indeed, we can call it a timeless piece of art.